Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Title Commentary

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Uncle Tom's Cabin
The Minister's Wooing

Uncle Tom's Cabin


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It is very easy to see that, although slavery has been abolished in the New England States, it has left behind it the most baneful feature of the system—that which makes American worse than Roman slavery—the prejudice of caste and colour. In the New England States the negro has been treated as belonging to an inferior race of beings; forced to sit apart by himself in the place of worship; his children excluded from the schools; himself excluded from the railroad-car and the omnibus, and the peculiarities of his race made the subject of bitter contempt and ridicule.

This course of conduct has been justified by saying that they are a degraded race. But how came they degraded? Take any class of men, and shut them from the means of education, deprive them of hope and self-respect, close to them all avenues of honourable ambition, and you will make just such a race of them as the negroes have been among us.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Excerpt from The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, pp. 52-3. London: Clarke, Beeton, and Co., 1853.

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The Minister's Wooing


SOURCE: Ramirez, Anne West. "Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christian Feminism in The Minister's Wooing: A Precedent for Emily Dickinson." Christianity and Literature 51, no. 3 (spring 2002): 407-24.

In the following essay, Ramirez argues that A Minister's Wooing, with its use of Christian teaching to challenge the dominant patriarchal institutions of its day, illuminates the shared cultural heritage of Stowe and Emily Dickinson.

Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

—Luke 12:32

God will not let us have heaven here below, but only such glimpses and faint showings as parents sometimes give to children, when they show them beforehand the jewelry and pictures and stores of rare and curious treasures which they hold for the possession of their riper years.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Minister's Wooing

The Love a Life can show Below
Is but a filament, I know,
Of that diviner thing
That faints upon the face of Noon—
And smites the Tinder in the Sun—
And hinders Gabriel's Wing—
—Emily Dickinson, Fr285/J673

As Thomas Wentworth Higginson maintains in his 1867 essay "A Plea for Culture," the great minds who are best remembered by posterity are "rarely isolated mountain-peaks" but rather "the summits of ranges" (18). The same argument has been brilliantly expanded by critic David S. Reynolds, who concludes that the great writers of the nineteenth century "memorably reconstructed the popular subversive imagination" and that Emily Dickinson was the "highest product of a rebellious American sisterhood" (567, 413). Many of these rebellious sisters were revisionists rather than radicals. Amid the social constraints and political inequalities they endured, they sought and found liberating principles within their cultural traditions. By privately and sometimes publicly appropriating for themselves the ideals of equality and individualism professed within Christianity, Romanticism, and American democracy, many nineteenth-century women contrived to maintain their sanity and inspire their contemporaries and descendants. From reading Scripture and other literature, they were increasingly empowered to challenge the very institutions that had taught them how and what to read. A striking expression of that challenge is The Minister's Wooing (1859) by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In this novel Stowe balances her themes celebrating romance and domesticity with a good admixture of comedy and satire, all expressed in a remarkably descriptive and leisurely style. Certainly The Minister's Wooing is no action-packed adventure story, but it is a shrewd psychological study, a feast for the visual imagination, and a compassionate critique of the New England Puritan tradition. Christianity, Romanticism, and feminism are blended in the portraits of Mary Scudder and several other admirable female characters. Mary is courageous, unselfish, and unconventional, expanding traditional definitions of female virtue. She upholds yet transforms the rigorous Puritan belief system, establishing through her example the possibility of a new community founded upon love rather than fear.

It seems likely that Dickinson may have read and enjoyed The Minister's Wooing, inasmuch as it was originally serialized in early issues of the Atlantic Monthly, shortly before the peak of Dickinson's creative productivity. As Beth Maclay Doriani has pointed out, Stowe would have provided Dickinson with at least one literary model of an assertive female voice "speaking prophetically while not seeming to transgress cultural boundaries" (149-50). Doriani's Emily Dickinson, Daughter of Prophecy provides a wide-ranging examination of Dickinson's prophetic vocation in the context of her religious and intellectual milieu. The present discussion complements this invaluable study by focusing on a single literary contemporary of the poet in detail, partially to establish Stowe as a precedent and potential resource not only for Dickinson but also for other readers (past and present) familiar with the same theological and cultural heritage.1

Both Stowe and Dickinson merit the attention of anyone interested in interdisciplinary women's studies, perhaps especially those who continue to grow up, as did these writers, in an evangelical tradition that impresses upon them the concept of the divine presence as unquestionably there, no matter how alarming or indifferent that presence might seem. Like Stowe and Dickinson, they cannot escape into comfortable unbelief and thus have no alternative but to seek a more bearable interpretation of their faith. For example, one of the most influential spokeswomen of the evangelical feminist movement in recent decades has been Reta Halteman Finger, for many years editor of the Christian feminist periodical Daughters of Sarah. In an analysis of three theories of Christ's atonement, Finger outlines the inadequacies of the commonly promoted substitutionary and moral-influence models of salvation and calls attention to the "Christus Victor" paradigm that predominated in the Church for the first thousand years after Christ. In this model humanity is delivered not from God the Father's wrath but from domination by evil powers, whether invisible or visible, societal or internal. The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are seen as "one continuing conflict with the powers of evil" ("How Can Jesus Save Women?" 16; see also "Your Daughters Shall Prophesy," "The Bible and Christian Feminism"). As we will see, The Minister's Wooing likewise modifies the image of a wrathful Father-God, partly by creating a female protagonist as the character most fully reflecting divine grace, and partly by presenting the Puritan minister himself as a more loving and admirable character than might be inferred from his stern theology. Such revisionist perspectives are justifiable in the tradition shared by Stowe, Dickinson, and Finger on the grounds that one's belief system is assumed to be based upon the interpretation of certain primary texts and that all individuals should be educated enough to analyze these texts. Conflicts of interpretation are thus to be resolved by justifying one's theory of literary criticism, so to speak, rather than by deferring to institutional authority. In the long run, as in Stowe's novel, these assumptions have undermined unjust social structures as women and disadvantaged men have drawn support for their liberationist thought and action from biblical texts and finally from one another's texts.

Both Stowe's novel and Dickinson's poems illustrate the psychological suffering shared by many other sensitive spirits growing up in the Calvinist tradition. On the other hand, both writers celebrate love and nature and other joys of earthly existence as precious foretastes of the Kingdom of Heaven rather than distractions from it. Both affirm women's right to develop their own spiritual vision rather than blindly following institutional dictates, even though both reveal some interest in more liturgical Christian traditions. Both contrive to transform the image of virtuous womanhood even while affirming various traditional domestic activities and values, and both reflect concern for the difficulties of other women. Both eloquently describe the suffering of thwarted love and imply that settling for "second best" is an undesirable alternative. Both suggest that learning to live with pain is an inescapable reality of life rather than a source of masochistic pleasure, and both portray the dream of reunion with loved ones in an afterlife. These many similarities are significant regardless of whether it can ever be demonstrated that Dickinson wrote any given poem in direct response to a particular passage by Stowe. Although such specific influence is quite possible, it is in no way essential to the point that The Minister's Wooing 's vivid illumination of their shared cultural heritage discourages the image of Dickinson as a masochistic neurotic and supports the impression of her as a relatively well integrated individual who sensitively articulated thoughts and experiences familiar to her contemporaries. The similarities of these two writers are also significant because they anticipate evangelical feminist thinkers of later generations, providing precedents for reinterpreting Christian teachings in ways conducive to theological and social reforms. The Minister's Wooing deserves greater attention for these reasons as well as for its own artistic merits.

Set in the late 1700s, Stowe's novel centers on Mary Scudder's love for the young sailor James Marvyn and her strength of character during his absence and after his reported death. Her widowed mother sympathizes with Mary's grief but has never wanted her to marry James because of his religious skepticism. Mother and daughter keep house for the minister, Dr. Samuel Hopkins (an actual figure of colonial history), whose rigorous neo-Edwardsian doctrines distress several members of his congregation. However, the good-hearted Doctor does credit to his faith by denouncing the slave trade, thereby losing his richest parishioner. Mrs. Scudder is delighted as the minister slowly falls in love with her daughter, who resigns herself to her lover's death and agrees to marry Hopkins.

In the meantime Mary has made friends with a young French Catholic woman, who is already married to a pleasant older man but who now has lost her heart to the unscrupulous Aaron Burr (another historical figure and, ironically, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards). As Virginie de Frontignac brings out Mary's best characteristics, the heroine's personality seems increasingly credible as the novel progresses. Upon realizing that Burr sees her as a mere plaything for his leisure hours, Virginie comes to stay with the Scudders while she tries to calm her emotional turmoil and remain a faithful wife. In a remarkably feminist scene Mary firmly impresses upon Aaron Burr that he must cease all contact with Madame de Frontignac. In turn, when James unexpectedly proves to have survived shipwreck, Virginie advises Mary to follow her heart and explain her feelings to the Doctor, rather than place herself in Virginie's predicament of loving one man while being married to another. Predictably, the unselfish Mary believes that she must not break her promise to the minister. However, the village dressmaker (a superbly comic character) takes it on herself to tell Dr. Hopkins that Mary has always loved James, leaving the issue in his hands. After a painful night the Doctor releases his bride-to-be to the young sailor. This generous sacrifice deeply impresses James, who has already become a more serious Christian during his long absence from Mary.

The novel's sentimental tendencies are counterbalanced by Stowe's humorous account of James Marvyn's mischievous childhood (see 64-65), the hilarious figure of Miss Prissy the dressmaker, the relationship of the servants Candace and Cato, and the informal diction of many of the characters. Moreover, although a superficial reader might classify Mary Scudder as a familiar stereotype of sentimental Victorian piety, Mary's inner conflicts over her love for James, her duty to her mother, and her genuine affection for Dr. Hopkins are realistically described. Furthermore, Stowe carefully contrasts Mary's spiritual influence on others with the ministry of Dr. Hopkins so as to demonstrate that a woman can manifest the image of God as thoroughly as any institutional male authority—a point perennially disputed by those opposed to the official ordination of women. Mary's character testifies to certain strengths in her religious tradition yet undercuts it in that her holiness does not derive from the kind of formal theological study to which the Doctor devotes his life. Stowe even cites Jonathan Edwards' deservedly famous description of his future wife, Sarah Pierrepoint, as an historical example supporting the credibility of her heroine (155-56).

Another model for Mary Scudder appears to have been the author's mother, Roxana Foote Beecher. Dying when Harriet was scarcely five, Roxana was remembered in the large family as a saint. However, Stowe's biographer, Joan D. Hedrick, implies that Roxana's life was in some respects at least as tragic as her early death. When as a child Harriet visited her mother's relatives at Nutplains, she found a very different world from Lyman Beecher's strict regime, even though Beecher had discarded some of the harsher Puritan teachings such as infant depravity. Grandmother Foote and Aunt Harriet were Episcopalians and sent the Beecher children presents at Christmas, a day not celebrated in their household. In her youth the cultured and well read Roxana had heard of distant lands and customs from her seafaring brother Samuel, and even learned French from a West Indian emigrant, but in her busy years as a minister's wife and mother of nine children she had very little time to read and reflect. Completely worn out, she died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one (Hedrick 7).

In The Minister's Wooing Roxana's daughter has Virginie de Frontignac warning Mary what will happen if she sends James away and marries the minister: "[M]ust you struggle always, and grow whiter and whiter, and fall away into heaven, like the moon this morning, and nobody know what is the matter? People will say you have the liver-complaint, or the consumption, or something. Nobody ever knows what we women die of" (304). Here it seems likely that Stowe indirectly recalls the difficulties of her mother's life, worn down by the needs and demands of those who made her into the household saint. Although the author gives Dr. Hopkins truly admirable qualities, from the beginning she enlists the reader's sympathies on the side of James Marvyn, the cheerful and adventurous sailor reminiscent of her Uncle Samuel Foote (who, incidentally, prevailed upon Lyman Beecher to allow novel-reading in his home). Hedrick perceptively concludes: "Combining the prophetic intensity of her father with the literary and cultural heritage of her mother, Harriet Beecher Stowe fused the best of her paternal and maternal heritage. She transformed the role of the angel in the house from a purely self-denying (and ultimately fatal) script into one in which she was a facilitator of and minister to the spirits of others" (9).

The commendable tolerance of Mary and Virginie for one another's religious beliefs reflects this ability to synthesize different perspectives. Harriet Beecher grew up hearing not only her father's exhortations to seek the Calvinist high road to salvation, but also her maternal relatives' concern for the soul of Lyman Beecher himself. The names of Mary and Virginie both recall the mother of Jesus, as if to suggest that they represent parts of one whole.

Like Stowe, Dickinson seems to deplore the self-sacrificial existence often expected of women in their society, as in Fr857/J732:

She rose to His Requirement—dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife—

If the character feels any regret, "It lay unmentioned" as if buried in the sea. Of course, the marvelous irony of this poem lies in its third-person perspective; the speaker is in fact able to perceive what the dutiful wife bravely tries to conceal from the world. Here Dickinson implicitly criticizes the same fate that Virginie de Frontenac fears for Mary if she marries the Doctor, despite his merits.

As Ann Douglas notes, Mary's spiritual sensitivity is combined with the "faculty" of making the lightest biscuits and creamiest butter in the village; she is her mother's daughter as well as her father's. Thus Stowe gently criticizes the absentmindedness of Dr. Hopkins, who devotes himself to thought and study while the two women provide for all his material needs (Douglas 75). Mary also does her own spinning and weaving, as did Stowe's pre-industrial Nutplains relatives. She is thus much more economically productive than the stereotypical Victorian domestic angel. As Mary spins in her little garret overlooking an apple tree, one is tempted to see her as yet another "madwoman in the attic," embodying the famous metaphor applied by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar to Dickinson and several other women writers.2 Of course, this is not to say that Mary is forcibly isolated by anyone, as is Bertha Antoinetta Mason in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rather, she apparently draws inner strength from voluntary times of solitude (as Dickinson seems to have done), enabling her mysterious transformation of the religious conventions she seems to follow so carefully into a spirituality so uniquely her own that Dr. Hopkins himself is humbled by her unswerving confidence in God's love. As for James, the seeds of his conversion are sown by his shamed realization that his love for Mary seems pathetically self-serving compared to her passionate willingness to give up her own salvation if only it could somehow ensure his entry into heaven.

Stowe is emphatically Romantic and painfully honest in portraying the struggles of Mary and Virginie to forget the men to whom they have lost their hearts. Neither James's supposed death nor Aaron Burr's self-centeredness makes it any easier for either woman to control her deep love. Stowe's plot recalls a cluster of traditional ballads in which a maiden hears that her beloved is lost at sea, marries another man, and subsequently is persuaded to desert him by the returning lover—or the devil who takes his shape—only to meet her death by shipwreck. A similar scenario is poignantly rendered in the literary ballad "Auld Robin Gray" by Lady Ann Lindsay (1750-1825). In this case the speaker marries to help her poverty-stricken parents. When her supposedly dead lover unexpectedly returns, she feels it is her duty to remain loyal to her husband (exactly as Mary Scudder would have done had James come home a week later):

I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin,
But I'll do my best a gude wife ay to be,
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me. (153)

Stowe might easily have known Lindsay's ballad, just as she knew the songs of Robert Burns. It may not be coincidence that her sailor lover is named James and that her title, like "Auld Robin Gray" and the "House Carpenter" ballad, oddly refers to the woman's second lover rather than to the woman herself who would seem to be the protagonist.

Still another obvious literary analogy, directly alluded to in the novel (178), is the story of Penelope staving off her suitors as she waits for Odysseus to come home, although in that case the couple are already married before Odysseus goes away. The common theme among all these narratives is the virtue of fidelity: under no circumstances should the young woman marry anyone other than her lost beloved, for this decision leads to disaster if she leaves the marriage or to misery if she stays. Every character in Stowe's novel appears to agree with this conventional wisdom except for Mary herself and her protective mother.

Similarly, we may never be certain whether Dickinson suffered a single great bereavement that outweighed all other sorrows, but if she did she evidently chose to remain faithful to that relationship's memory. As she affirms in Fr884/J781: "To wait Eternity—is short—/ If Love reward the end." Many of her more somber poems that describe the aftermath of tragic loss reflect this same principle of fidelity even when hope of earthly reunion is gone. In Fr683/J618 the persona describes the terrible "Width of Life … / Without a thing to do" spreading before her and begs for simple tasks such as the "humblest Patchwork—Children do—/ To still it's noisy Hands—[Help it's Vacant Hands—]." After her bereavement Mary Scudder's "care about the details of life seemed more than ever minute; she was always anticipating her mother in every direction, and striving by a thousand gentle preveniences to save her from fatigue and care" (218). When Madame de Frontignac takes refuge with the Scudders, she too devotes herself to helping with the domestic tasks and continues to adorn her appearance as she tries to subdue her feelings for Aaron Burr. Much the same attitude is expressed in a haunting Dickinson poem, Fr522/J443, in which the speaker disciplines herself to meet her responsibilities and achieve external calm despite great suffering:

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life's little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

Like Stowe's heroines, Dickinson's speaker feels that she is facing "Miles on Miles of Nought," yet she commits herself to "life's labor—/ Though life's Reward—be done."

The imperceptible easing of pain, experienced by both Mary and Virginie, is paralleled by Dickinson's "It ceased to hurt me, though so slow / I could not feel the trouble [Anguish] go" (Fr421/J584), in which the speaker, "looking back," begins to sense that "whereas 'twas Wilderness—/ It's better—almost Peace—." At first Virginie is startled that Mary has agreed to marry the Doctor, as she clearly sees it is "not the light of any earthly love" in her friend's face "but only the calmness of a soul that knows itself no more" (248). However, she sadly concludes that Mary will "have peace" by this means (249).

The subplot is essential to Stowe's achievement in The Minister's Wooing, for Mary's character is perhaps most successfully dramatized by her passionate interview with Aaron Burr on behalf of her friend. The author's analysis of Burr resembles her father's view of Lord Byron as a tragic figure who went astray and wasted his great gifts (Crozier 207). Burr is utterly astonished to hear the gentle Puritan maiden pronounce that he has "done a very great injury" to Madame de Frontignac and "taken the very life out of her." Dismissing his cultivated protests, Mary continues:

You men can have everything—ambition, wealth, power; a thousand ways are open to you: women have nothing but their heart; and when that is gone, all is gone.… You have stolen all the love she had to give … and you can never give her anything in return, without endangering her purity and her soul.… [A]nd if you die, as I fear you have lived, unreconciled to the God of your fathers, it will be in her heart to offer up her very soul for you, and to pray that God will impute all your sins to her, and give you heaven.


Similarly, in Dickinson's "I cannot live with you" (Fr706/J640) the speaker affirms that "were You lost, I would be—/ Though my name / Rang loudest / On the Heavenly fame."

Mary's indignation reveals a deeply feminist awareness that women's suffering is multiplied because society allows them to define themselves only in terms of their relationships, whereas men have many other ways to define themselves and seek fulfillment. The fact that no painless alternatives exist for either young woman at this point seems to reflect stark realism rather than the sentimental masochism described at length by Marianne Noble. Even though Virginie experiences one form of suffering by avoiding Burr, the alternative of becoming illicitly involved with him would also result in suffering. Similarly, Mary will continue to grieve for James no matter whether she does or does not marry the Doctor. Neither Mary nor Virginie welcomes pain, and Stowe specifically undercuts Mary's mood of extreme self-abnegation after James's shipwreck as "a state not purely healthy" (217), in which her spirit is "utterly divided from the world" (218). Although Dickinson is noted for her eloquent expression of suffering, she too can be seen as resisting rather than collaborating with the patriarchal culture so often responsible for women's pain. Doriani argues that "Dickinson transformed renunciation.… Certainly such a transformation was necessary for the woman prophet in America, who had to alter a conventional social role of renunciation into renunciation as prophetic stance" (162-63). Neither Stowe nor Dickinson implies that coping with pain as constructively as possible is necessarily equivalent to passively accepting, or desiring, suffering on society's terms.

Paradoxically, it is only in the arena of religious faith—despite the elements in Calvinism that Stowe deplores—that society allows a woman such as Mary to be the equal or superior of any man, no matter what his learning or institutional office. At the same time, Stowe suggests that the impossibly high standards for salvation and full church membership, as promoted by Hopkins and other followers of Edwards, are much to blame for inadvertently alienating the James Marvyns and Aaron Burrs of the world from Christianity. The damage sometimes wrought by such disturbing doctrines as predestination is painfully evident in the scene at the Marvyn home when word comes that James is lost at sea. Mrs. Marvyn is a deeply sensitive and well read woman who cannot help fearing that she fails to meet the strict criteria for salvation set forth by her religious community. Worse yet, she fears for the souls of those she loves and thus is thrown into agonies lest James has been condemned for all eternity. (Mrs. Marvyn is commonly thought to be modeled on the author's sister, Catherine, who suffered similar distress upon her fiancé's death). Neither Mr. Marvyn nor Mary can halt the tide of the mother's near-insane despair: "The number of the elect is so small we can scarce count them for anything! Think what noble minds, what warm generous hearts, what splendid natures are wrecked and thrown away by thousands and tens of thousands!" she cries out in honest rage (199). "It is not right! … I never can think it right,—never!" (200). It is Candace, the maternal African freedwoman, who brings Mrs. Marvyn some measure of comfort as she challenges the teachings of their church with her description of a compassionate Christ whose love cannot possibly be less than that of fallen human creatures.

Dickinson parallels the reactions of Stowe's characters in such poems as Fr1675/J1601:

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven—
For what, he is presumed to know—
The Crime, from us, is hidden—

Similarly, in Fr1752/1719 she describes a "jealous" Deity who "cannot bear to see / That we had rather not with Him / But with each other play." Dickinson's poems repeatedly express torments lest the world to come be less precious than the beauty and relationships enjoyed on earth. Nevertheless, in other poems she finds her way to an image of Christ much like that of Stowe's Candace, as Dorothy Huff Oberhaus has explained.

On the whole, The Minister's Wooing is not so much a forum for conventional piety as it is an effort to take seriously the emotional and philosophical problems arising within Puritan culture and to dramatize them through the interaction of characters as lively as many in the novels of Charles Dickens. Even if some readers cannot find Mary credible, Stowe lavishes vivid description and considerable wit upon her portraits of Mrs. Katy Scudder, Miss Prissy, Cerinthy Ann, Madame de Frontignac, and several minor characters from the community. The resulting heteroglossia is delightfully illustrated by Miss Prissy's description of Madame de Frontignac's decoration of the best room for Mary's wedding:

… she spent nobody knows what time in going round and getting evergreens and making wreaths, and putting up green boughs over the pictures, so that the room looked just like the Episcopal Church at Christmas. In fact, Mrs. Scudder said, if it had been Christmas, she shouldn't have felt it right, but, as it was, she didn't think anybody would think it any harm.


For a wedding the Puritan conscience accepted the colorful decoration and ritual that would be avoided at Christmas to emphasize the community's separation from Anglo-Catholic tradition. Ironically, the only rituals to thrive in Puritan New England were those of nature (as Stowe reminds us through repeated mention of morning birdsong, lilacs, apple blossoms, and apples), as well as the dressmaking and decorating rituals maintained by women in honor of great events in the natural life cycle.

Similarly, among the descendants of Calvinist tradition, a fondness for decorative domestic arts, natural foods, organic gardening, and the like still continues to coexist with a preference for relatively unadorned church buildings and ritual-free worship services. Lawrence Buell speaks of the "obsolescence of Stowe's literary renditions of Puritanism as opposed to Hawthorne's" as being due to his greater ability to transform "Puritan categories into techniques that could be transported across regional and temporal lines" (280). It could be argued, however, that the Puritans of The Minister's Wooing resemble many Americans of today much more than do the stern characters in The Scarlet Letter, even though Stowe may not be Nathaniel Hawthorne's rival as an artist in some other respects.

Dickinson is entirely at one with Stowe in her imaginative appreciation of the New England countryside and in her resistance to the separation of life into secular and sacred compartments. She too seems to have measured time by the smallest details of the changing seasons. The robin is a favorite image with both writers; more than thirty Dickinson poems mention robins. A memorable example is "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—" (Fr256/J285), in which the images move through the signs by which the speaker anticipates each season. Both Stowe and Dickinson "see—New Englandly" and recreate their vision for the delight of their readers. Although the Puritans rejected the colorful celebrations of the Anglo-Catholic liturgical year, Dickinson virtually reinvented a similar symbolic system for herself, as Barton Levi St. Armand has demonstrated through a detailed chart of her imagery (317), and Stowe enjoyed attending Episcopal services in her later years—sometimes in Grace Church, Amherst, where her daughter Georgianna's husband served as rector.

Critic Gayle Kimball assumes that Stowe concurred with the supposedly common Victorian belief that women had no sexual passions and were above the carnal temptations afflicting males (100-02). Mary Scudder's saintliness, however, is combined throughout the novel with her ineradicable Romantic yearning for the body and soul of her tall, black-haired lover whom she never expects to meet again in this life. Just before he reappears, she is meditating upon her approaching marriage, still unable in the privacy of her imagination to see anyone but James as bridegroom: "She fell into one of those reveries which she thought she had forever forbidden to herself, and there rose before her mind the picture of a marriage-ceremony,—but the eyes of the bridegroom were dark, and his curls were clustering in raven ringlets, and her hand throbbed in his as it had never throbbed in any other" (291).

In every respect Stowe predisposes the reader to agree with Virginie's argument against keeping Mary's secret love from the Doctor: "My dear child, do you think, if he should ever find it out after your marriage, he would think you used him right?" (304). James similarly points out, "Is it a kindness to a good and noble man to give yourself to him only seemingly, when the best and noblest part of your affections is gone wholly beyond your control?" (306-07). At the same time, we are meant to admire Mary's self-sacrificing concern for the Doctor's feelings and her deep joy over James's conversion. The latter circumstance literally transforms Mary's appearance during the last Sunday service before she is to marry the Doctor, in a scene almost certainly intended to recall the Transfiguration of Christ: "Everybody noticed, as she came into church that morning, how beautiful Mary Scudder looked. It was no longer the beauty of the carved statue, the pale alabaster shrine, the sainted virgin, but a warm, bright, living light" (309). The author blends earthly and heavenly longings into one as Mary's exalted vision of eternity is founded on her now-certain hope of reunion with James, even though in this scene she still fully intends to marry Dr. Hopkins: "And as Mary sang, she felt … that life is but a moment and love is immortal, and seemed, in a shadowy trance, to feel herself and him, far over on the shores of that other life, … all tears wiped away, and with full permission to love and be loved forever" (310). Dickinson imagines a similar celestial "Bridal" in Fr691/J625:

'Twas a long Parting—but the time
For Interview—had Come—
Before the Judgment Seat of God—
The last—and second time
These Fleshless Lovers met—
A Heaven in a Gaze—
A Heaven of Heavens—the Privilege
Of one another's Eyes—

With gentle irony Stowe proceeds to bring about the happy ending, not through the heroine's much-extolled virtues but through Miss Prissy's kind-hearted revelation to the Doctor, encouraged by Madame de Frontignac and old Candace. Instead of dying like Little Eva of Uncle Tom's Cabin and other sentimental heroines of popular culture, Mary survives to enjoy the fulfillment of her love on earth. Perhaps the marriage of Mary and James symbolizes the union of the more positive elements of the Puritan heritage with the good things of earthly life—precisely the resolution evidently sought by Dickinson, as well as by many others within their tradition. However, Dickinson's integration of earth and heaven did not include marriage and motherhood, a choice that Stowe indirectly helps to clarify.

According to Kimball, Stowe must be recognized as an influential voice who "did much to shackle women to domesticity and the avoidance of competition with men," hindering the "achievement of equal rights for women" (168). It is true that in essays such as "Woman's Sphere" Stowe expressed the common belief that the majority of women would continue to seek and find their greatest happiness in marriage and motherhood, and she does exalt the good mother as the ultimate source of all efforts to transform the evils of society (Household Papers 249-73). Kimball's conclusion nevertheless must be questioned in light of The Minister's Wooing, for here Stowe, whether consciously or not, subverts the cult of motherhood to a startling extent. Both Mary and James are explicitly described as having independent personalities that continually surprise their mothers. Neither Mrs. Scudder nor Mrs. Marvyn could be labeled a bad mother, but neither is presented as primarily responsible for molding her child into the kind of young adult each has become. The same might reasonably be said of Dickinson's mother as well. Each mother does the best she can according to her lights, but Mrs. Scudder and Mrs. Marvyn are far more human and realistic than the stereotypical ideal that Stowe might elsewhere seem to endorse. If anything, the affection between Mary and her mother seems rather like the relationship between Emily and Lavinia Dickinson, one marked by mutual respect for their different temperaments.

In her helpful introduction to the new Penguin edition of The Minister's Wooing, Susan K. Harris rightly notes that it can be read as a feminist text, "especially in its focus on the transition from textual to experiential piety" (xx). However, Stowe and other nineteenth-century Americans lived in a period of increasing tension between the improvement of educational opportunities for women and the economic pressures of industrialization to keep hearth and home separate from the world of commerce. This separation of spheres was much less evident in the late eighteenth-century culture in which Stowe places Mary Scudder. Although division of labor certainly existed, couples such as the Marvyns interacted with one another in the course of a day considerably more than would their counterparts in later decades. As Hedrick puts it, "When women's informal ministry was enshrined in Victorian parlors swathed in tapestries and filled with worldly goods, its radical challenge to male structures of power was sharply curtailed" (287). If there was a feminization of Christianity during the course of the nineteenth century, its potential to reform society was partially negated by the secularization of power; a woman-centered religion is not necessarily a feminist one. A consequence of these cultural conditions was the compromising view that women—perhaps exceptional women—could indeed do most of the same things as men but that they could not raise a family at the same time.

In theory this view is sorely outdated; in practice the dilemma it recognizes is far from being solved. In the meantime many talented women besides Dickinson have felt obliged to make choices not faced by men. Kimball notes that 60-70% of the first generation of graduates from women's colleges did not marry (161). One begins to wonder who actually lived according to the stereotype of the cultured Victorian mother who devoted herself primarily to husband and children. Stowe was fortunate enough to have household help in order to obtain some time to write, but as she explains in The Minister's Wooing (282) and in a perceptive essay titled "The Lady Who Does Her Own Work" (Household Papers 85-101), a great many refined and educated American women, outside of the South, had to spend considerable time doing household tasks that would have been done by servants in comparable English homes. Children were commonly expected to help, rather than receive undivided attention from their mothers. In this context Dickinson's lifestyle seems quite explicable and rational.

It is true that the Dickinsons had an Irish maid and gardeners for many years, but they fit Stowe's description of American hired help who assisted the family members with the work as opposed to doing all of it for them. It must be recalled that the poet contributed long hours of active labor to the maintenance of a leading citizen's large home. Aife Murray argues that the ebb and flow of Dickinson's writing corresponds with the absence and presence of a maid (although there probably were other factors as well). After the creativity of the early 1860s, the poet wrote less from 1865 until 1869, when Maggie Maher was hired (286). Although Dickinson appears to have composed—or at least copied out—her poems more plentifully again in the early 1870s, she also worked side by side with Maggie and her sister as long as her health permitted (287-88). As it was, Dickinson had enough to distract her from perfecting her art. It is not surprising that she, like many other intellectual women of the era, did not undertake the additional responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.

Dickinson's "Don't put up my Thread and Needle" (Fr681/J617) poignantly hints at the poet's efforts to integrate different facets of her life. The speaker, apparently too ill to rise from her pillow, is regretting her "zigzag stitches" and promising to do better:

These were bent—my sight got crooked—
When my mind—is plain
I'll do seams—a Queen's endeavor
Would not blush to own—

Read metaphorically, the poem might be interpreted as an expression of anxiety about her vision and of eagerness to resume her writing as soon as her health permitted. However, the persona of the frustrated seamstress who longs to perfect her fine embroidery suggests the poet's respect for the gifts of other women, and perhaps her identification with their distress when temporarily unable to fulfill their domestic responsibilities. At the same time, the seamstress persona may reflect Dickinson's ironic awareness that many people would sympathize with a woman apologizing for the interruption of domestic activities, but not with a woman concerned about neglecting her calling as prophetic artist. Even more ironically, the poem might be read as a half-sincere, half-mocking apology for falling behind in the household arts because of taxing her sight and energies by writing.

The Minister's Wooing enables readers to understand better the heritage underlying Dickinson's art and life. If she ever experienced a romantic crisis in which she suffered a separation from her beloved, as many have speculated, Stowe's novel makes it the more credible that she refused to settle for second best (the bereaved Catherine Beecher also remained single). If, as others infer, the poet personally suffered the religious doubts and fears expressed in her poetry, The Minister's Wooing lays bare the theological system that evoked such reactions and, once again, makes the poet's responses seem more natural than neurotic. As Alfred Habegger points out in his recent biography, "not one document from her many literate and outspoken contemporaries speaks of her as crazy" (411)—extraordinary and enigmatic, admittedly, but far from dysfunctional. If the contradictory perspectives on love, religion, and death within Dickinson's poems seem baffling, it is plausible to hypothesize that she sometimes imaginatively articulates the thoughts and emotions of characters encountered in her reading (or of friends and acquaintances). Perhaps it is within reason to see some affinities between the impact of Mary Scudder on other characters and the impressions of Dickinson recorded by those who knew her.

In an eloquent obituary in the Springfield Republican, Susan Gilbert Dickinson felt moved to eulogize her sister-in-law with unqualified respect:

So intimate and passionate was her love of Nature, she seemed herself a part of the high March sky, the summer day and bird-call. Keen and eclectic in her literary tastes, she sifted libraries to Shakespeare and Browning; quick as the electric spark in her intuitions and analyses, she seized the kernel instantly, almost impatient of the fewest words, by which she must make her revelation. To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm step of martyrs who sing while they suffer.

(qtd. in Leyda 2:473)

Similarly, Susan's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, would later recall her aunt's "accomplished cheerfulness," surmising that her "unfailing demeanor in her daily life" may have been influenced by her perusal of the Imitation of Christ, the fifteenth-century classic. "In certain moods she would likely have tossed up the crown for the immediate earthly gift withheld her," Bianchi acknowledges, yet, echoing one of Dickinson's frequent metaphors, she concludes, "That her soul had a guest has never been doubted" (303). Like Stowe's Mary Scudder, however, the poet seems to have been rather less ascetic than Thomas a Kempis, considering her passionate appreciation for the most commonplace joys of earthly life.

In addition to these tributes, an article by Dickinson's first cousin Clara Newman Turner recalls the poet as angelic, sensitive, extraordinarily moved by the beauties of nature, and sympathetically available to the orphaned Clara and her sister Anna, who were placed in Austin's family to help care for Ned and Mattie (see Sewall 1:264-75). In all these accounts we catch glimpses of a courageously independent spirit living in accordance with her own conscience rather than by the rules of institutional authority, just as Mary Scudder's inward grace seems to transcend the spiritual processes set forth in Calvinist doctrine. If the character of Mary was not among the resources contributing to the poet's "accomplished cheerfulness," it would seem fair to observe that Dickinson's personality, as described by those closest to her in life, independently supports the realism of Mary's characterization.

An 1854 editorial by one Paula Wright Davis argues that women's rights are advanced not only by public oratory and political activity but also "by any independent working woman, by any woman novelist, by any woman editor," and by any woman who is a creative artist, "the holiest reformer of them all" (qtd. in Reynolds 397). Karen Dandurand has established that a considerable audience had begun to appreciate Dickinson's gifts during her lifetime through the sharing of poems enclosed in letters and the reprinting of a few poems that were published in the newspapers—as well as Colonel Higginson's reading of her manuscripts to the New England Women's Club in 1875 (255-68). Although this semi-public dissemination was often anonymous, allowing Dickinson to maintain the seclusion her temperament and goals required, in "I Sing to use the Waiting" (Fr955/J850) she anticipates the "journey to the Day" amid companions who will freely "tell each other how We sang / To keep the Dark away." Cheryl Walker's landmark study The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 maintains that the poet's "sensibility was consistent in many important respects with the sensibility of other women writers of her time" (109). This conclusion should be construed as a compliment to Dickinson as well as to her contemporaries.

Among them Stowe, outwardly so different from Dickinson, deserves increased recognition for her detailed illumination of their common cultural heritage and for the very real literary merits of The Minister's Wooing. Few nineteenth-century novels maintain such a delicate balance between honest disillusionment with conventional religion and the imaginative invocation of that very religion's ideals as the foundation for a more egalitarian and holistic spiritual vision. History tells us what has been; literature tells us what might be.


  1. Also complementing Doriani's work is my essay "The Art to Save: Emily Dickinson's Vocation as Female Prophet," in which thematic clusters of prophetic poems are classified and examined. An influential earlier source providing some relevant analysis of the poet's relationship to religious faith is Eberwein's Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation.
  2. See Gilbert and Gubar's analysis in "A Woman—White: Emily Dickinson's Yarn of Pearl" (581-650), which includes some discussion of the poet's strategy of adopting personae.

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Dandurand, Karen. "Dickinson and the Public." Dickinson and Audience. Ed. Martin Orzeck and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. 255-77.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1955.

——. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Variorum edition. Ed. Ralph W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1998.

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——. "Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Christian Feminist Critiques Feminist Theology." The Other Side Oct. 1988: 28-41.

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Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random, 2001.

Harris, Susan K. Introduction. The Minister's Wooing, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Penguin, 1999. vii-xxiii.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1984.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "A Plea for Culture." 1867. Atlantic Essays. Boston: Osgood, 1871. 3-22.

Kimball, Gayle. The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Her Gospel of Womanhood. Studies in Women and Religion 8. New York: Mellen, 1982.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1960.

Lindsay, Lady Ann. "Auld Robin Gray." The Golden Treasury. Ed. Francis Turner Palgrave. 1861. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 152-53.

Murray, Aife. "Kitchen Table Poetics: Maid Margaret Maher and Her Poet Emily Dickinson." Emily Dickinson Journal 5 (1996): 285-96.

Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. "'Tender Pioneer': Emily Dickinson's Poems on the Life of Christ." American Literature 59 (1987): 341-58.

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